This message was designed to do one thing: challenge people to decide to follow Jesus wholeheartedly.
Part of what prompted it was a conversation with one of the pastors on our staff, Scott Palmbush. We were talking about conversion stories, and Scott was mentioning how often in "Presbyterian culture" people are more or less socialized into faith. They kind of drift into church attendance and some level of involvement, and may struggle with getting clear on whether or not they've actually made a commitment.
So it's a very simple message, and the structure is very lean. The whole thing is built around this one distinction: being an admirer versus being a follower.
Just having watched the Olympics made the opening pretty simple. And the distinction flowed easily out of the text. We were finishing a series on the Sermon on the Mount, and one of the dynamics there (and throughout Matthew) is the distinction between the 'crowds' and the 'disciples'. Both of them are present—in an ambiguous way—at the beginning and the end of the sermon.
Plus, the entire back end of the sermon is a series of relentlessly contrasting images designed to force people into a choice: the broad way or the narrow way.
I also found it helpful to think about specific people that I'd put in the 'admirer' category so I could name some of those characteristics that would help folks recognize themselves.
Always through the message I kept looking for ways to keep the tension up between admirers and followers. I thought of it as a narrowing process that kept eliminating alternatives, so that people would recognize the need to eventually choose one way or the other.
The stuff about Charles Blondin has been around forever and has probably been used in a million sermons. But in preaching, as in real estate, the number one law of illustrations is "location, location, location." So here, the contrast between admiring and following so perfectly fit the sermon that the story felt fresh. And by the end of the message, having some material to flesh things out (Blondin and then the car guidance system) helped keep the congregation on board.
After the sermon there was a response time, when I invited people who had never committed their lives to Christ before to stand up, and that was the real joy in the message. One couple came up afterwards; the husband was 80 years old and was weeping, saying he wanted to give his life to Christ.
If I had it to do over again, I might spend more time allowing for a response from folks who have already made that commitment, but were aware of areas where they had been holding their lives back from God.
I did find it helpful to find a way to invite people to make a commitment to Christ, only not have the primary driver be: "If you were to die tonight, how do you know for sure you'd get into heaven?" It struck me while I was putting the sermon together that one problem in evangelicalism is that while in Jesus' day the pattern was "Stranger to Jesus—Admirer of Jesus—Follower of Jesus," we have added a stage after admirer: "User of Jesus," where people think they can use Jesus' death to get into heaven but that such a choice is disconnected from actually following him. And the point is not that you have to follow him or God won't let you into heaven; the point is that heaven is simply another word for following Jesus perfectly. If you don't want to follow him, you wouldn't care for heaven. But that's probably another sermon.
Did any of you see Michael Phelps swim in the Olympics? Wasn't he unbelievable? He won eight gold medals and set all kinds of world records. It is remarkable how popular one man can become. I talked to somebody a couple of weeks ago who works with Facebook, and he was telling me Facebook added, they are estimating, about five million people to their ranks over the Olympics—all because Michael Phelps talked about being on Facebook. How many of you here would be willing to raise your hand and say, "I admire Michael Phelps"? Just about all of us.
Now somewhere out there, a kid was watching the Olympics and what happened inside him goes way beyond admiration. Somewhere out there is a kid who was watching Michael Phelps swim, and when he was watching, his heart started pounding and his mind started racing, and he thought to himself, What Michael Phelps is doing, I could do. The way he is swimming, I could swim.
That kid is reading articles and watching videos, going to the pool, finding a coach, swimming laps. He actually wants to become like Michael Phelps, and one day he will. There is a kid out there somewhere who watched whose heart started racing, and one day he is going to be in the Olympics. He isn't just an admirer of Michael Phelps, he is a follower.
I'm not in that category. I'll applaud what Michael Phelps did, but I'm not going to change my life. I haven't been in a pool since the Olympics. I am an admirer but not a follower, and there is a big difference.
An admirer is impressed. A follower is devoted. An admirer applauds. A follower surrenders his life. A lot of people admired Martin Luther King. Some marched with him. Not many went to jail with him. Not many got their houses bombed like he did. A lot of people admired Mother Theresa. Not many people followed her to live among the destitute and dying.
Many people admired Jesus, but a few devoted themselves to him.
I say this because today we come to the end of the Sermon on the Mount. When Jesus gave this talk that changed the world, there were two groups of people listening to him. At the beginning of it, we are told, when he saw the crowds, he went up to the mountainside. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach. One group was the crowd, and they were very impressed by Jesus. In fact, when he reached the end of the Sermon on the Mount, we are told this about their response: "When Jesus finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as their teachers of the law."
The whole crowd admired Jesus, but while he was teaching, something happened in the hearts of a few of them that went way beyond admiration, and their hearts started pounding and their minds started racing. Something deep inside them said, "This is it. This is what I have been longing for my whole life without even knowing it, without being able to name it, to be cleansed and forgiven of all my sin and all that junk that is part of my life, to know God, to have a life beyond worry, beyond fear, to not be a slave to sexual desire or unhealthy habits or the need for more and more money, to be part of God's cause to redeem the world, to have confidence beyond the grave, to not be afraid of death anymore. I have to have this. I would rather have what this man has and give up everything else in the world, than to have everything the world could offer me and give up this man. Therefore, I will pay any price. I don't care. I will do whatever he wants me to do. I will go wherever he wants me to go. I will give whatever he says I ought to give. I will be whatever he says I should be. Today, I am leaving the crowd. As of today, I'm not just an admirer anymore. I will live as a fully devoted follower of this man Jesus."
Jesus knew that his presence, his life, his words would have this impact on a few, and he is constantly forcing people to decide if they will move from admirer to follower. He is constantly forcing people to choose.
Admirers hold back part of themselves.
In John 3, a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a religious leader, comes. We are told in the text, "He came to Jesus by night and said, 'Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God for no one could do these miracles if god were not with them.'" He is an admirer of Jesus: You must have come from God. Nobody could do what you are doing if God wasn't with you.
But he came to Jesus by night. Why do you think the text tells us the Pharisee Nicodemus came to Jesus by night? He didn't want to be seen. He didn't want to risk losing his status among the religious leaders of Israel. He was an admirer. Jesus said, "Nicodemus, you must be born again. You must become my follower. You must allow my spirit to remake you. You must publicly identify with me. You are going to have to give up what you want the most."
And Nicodemus does. When Jesus dies, Nicodemus publicly claims his body and places it in a tomb. He goes from the night into the light to become not just an admirer but a follower of Jesus.
One day, somebody who became known as a rich young ruler came up to Jesus. We are told: "He ran up to Jesus and fell on his knees. 'Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?'" He is an admirer of Jesus. He falls on his knees before him. He calls him "good teacher." Jesus says one thing: "Go and sell all your possessions. Radically change your lifestyle. Give away everything you have to bless the poor. Come and follow me."
This rich young ruler turned and walked away very sad. He was ready to admire Jesus, but following Jesus … that would interfere with his financial life. That is where he drew the line. Jesus always does this with people: Are you going to follow me or just admire?
All through the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is describing his kind of life, the life of blessing. Blessed are you. Blessed are you. Blessed are you. If you want it. Even you, who thought you were a million miles away from God. That blessing is yours if you want it. He talks about what it looks like. Then at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, he says: If you want this life, here is how you obtain it. Enter in through the narrow gate, for wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction and many enter through it, but small is the gate and narrow is the way that leads to life and only a few find it.
What is the narrow way? It is Jesus. "I am the way, the truth, and the life." Love Jesus. Surrender to Jesus. Trust Jesus. Abide in Jesus. Devote yourself to Jesus without reservation and hold nothing back.
What is the broad way? That is the way of the crowd. That's what people do in our world. The path of least resistance, kind of drift along, admire Jesus if you want, but reserve for yourself the right to do whatever you want to do when the chips are down, when push comes to shove.
There is no third category for a halfhearted commitment to Christ.
The end of the Sermon on the Mount is a series of pictures that Jesus gives, and every one of them involves this stark contrast designed to force people to choose. There is a narrow gate or there is a wide gate. No third gate. There is a narrow road and a broad road. No third road. There is a good tree and a bad tree. No third tree. There are true disciples and false disciples. No third category. House built on the rock, house built on the sand. No third house. People who do what Jesus says and people who hear and know but don't seek to do.
It all comes down to this: Will you be wholly devoted to Jesus from your heart or will you not? Follow or just admire?
I've been thinking a lot about what the admirer category looks like, because I think it's widespread in our day and I want to sharpen this as much as I can. If you ask folks in the admiring-Jesus category, "Do you believe in Jesus?" they would most likely say, "Sure, I believe, in my own way." They may go to church, maybe for years. They may volunteer sometimes. They may give some stuff. But they want to retain control of their lives. If getting too close to Jesus would mean risking something they don't want to risk, like their success at work—or changing their lifestyle or humbling themselves to get help with a crumbling marriage or getting serious about immersing their mind in Scripture rather than just drifting along or not sleeping anymore with somebody they aren't married to or getting help with their anger or some habit they have—then, deep down in the secret place of their soul, they want to be able to say, "No." They want to be able to say to God, "Hands off. This life is my life." So they admire Jesus, but they will try to maintain a certain distance between them and Jesus.
Now, if that distance gets too big, if they slip up somehow and sin in what looks to them like a big way, they might come to church a little more often. They may give a little extra money. They don't want to let the gap get too great, because that would feel uncomfortable, but they won't let him get too close. They are often spiritual chameleons. With church people, they can talk the Jesus talk, but in another setting, maybe on a business trip or at school, they do not clearly stand with this man Jesus. They do whatever they need to do to fit in with that crowd as well. They can even feel a little superior sometimes to all these different groups because they float above them, but inside they are hollow because they are fundamentally uncommitted people, because there is not commitment that goes to their core that they have given everything for, except maybe commitment to themselves.
They will generally rationalize their devotion, and it will sometimes look like this: They will find a fired-up Christian somewhere who is quite imperfect, and they will say to themselves, "You know, if I was all fired up spiritually, I would be self-righteous like this person, or I would be hypocritical like this person, or I would be flawed like this person, and I don't want to do that." So they will justify never fully devoting themselves to God by focusing on the flaws of some apparently more devoted person.
Let me be frank with you. I was talking with one of our longtime elders, and he was telling me about a really nice pastor at a really nice church. This pastor was haunted at the end of his ministry by how a lot of people who attended his church somehow, out of vagueness or niceness or fear or drift or something, never got clear on this one issue: Have you devoted yourself wholly to Jesus Christ as the Savior and Lord and Master of your life, or have you not? Broad road or narrow road? What's it gonna be? What will you choose?
I thought about my own life, and I wondered, How often do I shrink back in personal conversations or with my church out of vagueness or out of my own sin and inadequacy or out of a desire to be liked or out of fear? I'll tell you my own conviction. I would rather be part of a community where the call of wholehearted devotion to Jesus is proclaimed clearly, even if it shrinks down to only a few, than to be part of a big crowd of thousands who drift along the broad road as admirers of Jesus without ever being challenged to their core to full devotion. So, I ask you, are you a follower of Jesus or just an admirer?
Jesus wants you to choose whether you will be his admirer or his follower.
I want to give a picture of the difference between admiration and full devotion by using a word that I had never heard until this week: funambulist. Do you know what this word means? An acrobat who walks on a cable from a great height. A tightrope walker.
There have been many of them, but one towers over everyone who has ever lived. About 150 years ago, he was at the peak of his game. His name was Charles Blondin. He came to the United States from overseas and was fascinated, obsessed actually, with Niagara Falls. He wanted to cross Niagara Falls on a rope. He actually strung a hemp cord 1100 feet across and 160 feet above Niagara Falls, and he said he was going to cross from one side to the other.
He was quite a showman. A crowd of 100,000 people gathered to watch Charles Blondin walk a tightrope across Niagara Falls inch by inch, step by step. Can you imagine the drama of that moment? Life or death. He had no safety net. He crossed all the way over. Tons of people, of course, were taking pictures of him, so he did it again. He crossed over with a camera and took a picture of the crowd while they were taking pictures of him.
He went another time and took a chair with him, balanced the chair on the rope, and stood on the chair. He went back another time and fixed an omelet. He actually did this and lowered it to passengers on the Maid of the Mist so one of them could have it for breakfast. He went another time and took a wheelbarrow across. The crowd went crazy. This man walked the rope "with authority, not like our teachers of the law."
He turned to the crowd and asked them, "Do you believe I can do this?" Of course, they all believed. Then he asked them, "Now, who will get into the wheelbarrow?" It got real quiet. Do you believe, or do you just admire? All 100,000 people were silent. One man named Harry Colcord knew Blondin. He had worked with him. He had seen him do it 100 times. He got into the wheelbarrow and they went inch by inch, step by step. Can you imagine that ride? In a wheelbarrow over Niagara Falls? They make it to the other side. Of course, the crowd went crazy again, but the crowd didn't get in the wheelbarrow. Everybody applauded Charles Blondin, but only one man trusted him, and the walk they went on together, neither one of them would ever forget.
Jesus finished the Sermon on the Mount, and everyone was amazed, but Jesus was not interested in amazing the crowd. Jesus never went up to people and said, "Admire me." He only said, "Follow me." He said, "Whoever wants to be my disciple, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me." Get in the wheelbarrow.
Here is the question: Have you wholly devoted yourself to following Jesus? Not, do you admire him? Not, do you believe? Are you a follower? Because this is the most momentous decision you can make, I want to be clear on what goes in the wheelbarrow. Your sin goes in there. Your guilt goes in there.
I've been at this long enough to know a lot of people when confronted with this challenge will feel deep inside, "I've got some sin. I've got some guilt. I am not a spiritual giant. I am not spiritual enough to be a follower of Jesus, to be a disciple." Jesus comes in the Sermon on the Mount and says: Your sin problem is much worse than you thought it was. You thought "thou shalt not murder" meant as long as you avoided homicide, you're okay with God on that one. The truth is, your heart is all messed up. It's a cauldron of anger and vengeance that leaks out of you and messes up your life. You thought that "no adultery" meant as long you avoid intercourse with somebody else's spouse that you're okay. The truth is that your heart is a cauldron of lust, of mismanaged, misguided desire that is out of your control. You have a sin problem like the Niagara Falls of sin, and you cannot clean that up, but I can. I can take care of that. I will die on a cross. I will put your sins on my back. I will take you to that other side where you could never get by your own good deeds. I will pay your debt if you will confess your sins and repent, which means you both ask God to forgive you and to help you change. I will wipe the slate clean if you will put your past, your sin, your guilt in my wheelbarrow.
Then also, you put in your present and your future. This means your time. It isn't yours anymore. Your energy. Your resources. Your money. Your savings. Your security. Those all go to Jesus. They're not yours anymore. Your life isn't about piling them up. Your relationships and how you behave in them. Your mind. Your sexuality. Your emotions. Your allegiance. Your language. Your money. Your work.
Now, of course, I can't even do that. I can't live Jesus' life and Jesus knows that, but he says: You can ask me to come and live my life in you.
I'll give you a picture of this. Nancy and I were in a part of the country we had never been before. We were going to be driving on obscure back roads, so we got a rental car, and the guy at the counter said to me, "Along with this car, if you want, you can also get a little box, a guidance system." Have you ever seen those? You plug it in and punch in your destination. It is amazing. A voice will tell you how to get to wherever it is you are going. "Do you want to add this to the car?"
My immediate response was, "No. That is going to cost something. I don't need that. I can find where I'm going without that."
Anybody want to guess what my wife weighed in with? "Get the box."
We got the box.
There was this voice coming out of the box. You don't even have to read it. Someone talks to you. It is a British voice, because people who talk with a British accent always sound smarter, don't they? You're just inclined to do what they say. It was a woman's voice, because … same thing.
Here's the deal: You can get the box. You can have the lady in the car, but that doesn't mean you trust her. If you trust her, what do you do? You do what she says. You go where she tells you to go. She says, "Turn left," you turn left. If she says, "Turn left," and in your heart you think, but I want to turn right, then you remember, "There is a way that seemeth right unto man, but the end thereof is death." Okay?
To follow Jesus means I will do what he says. I will mess up a lot. I'm going to need his power. I know that, but I form the intention. I say to him, "God, with your help, as best I can, I will do what you say. I will give you my life, my time, my obedience."
Here is the thing: If that is not your settled intent, then it is best to be honest about it. If that is not your settled intent, then whatever else you might be, you are not a follower of Jesus. An admirer, maybe. But he is looking for followers. He is looking for somebody who will say, "All right, God."
There is something else you need to know about him. At one point when we were driving in this car, I was quite sure the lady was wrong. She said to go left, and I didn't go left. I went right, because I knew she was wrong. Then as an interesting response, she said, "Recalculating route. When safe to do so, execute a U-turn." I knew she was wrong, so I unplugged her. That's the beauty of that little box. You can unplug her.
And I got lost as a goose. And my wife enjoyed that immensely.
So we plugged that lady back in, and you know what she said? "I told you so, you little idiot." She said, "You think I'm going to help you now? You rejected me. There is no way. You just find your way home by yourself." No, she didn't. She said, "Recalculating route. When safe to do so, execute a U-turn."
Now see, that's grace. As soon as you're ready to listen, as soon as you're ready to surrender, God will say, "Here is the way home. Execute a U-turn." That's repentance. "I'll bring you home." That is grace. That's Jesus. Jesus is it. He is the only one with authoritative wisdom about how to live. He is the only one to bring about the possibility of forgiveness for your sin and mine. He is the only one to give any kind of realistic hope of conquering death, of life beyond the grave.
Why would you not give your full devotion to this man? He does not present himself as a good, spiritual teacher to be admired from a distance. He presents himself as Master, as Lord, as the one to be followed and served and obeyed and worshiped. There is no other way. He is it.
You need to know this. He says that one day all of humanity will be in one of two camps: Those who follow him, and those who reject him. There will be no third option. No third gate. No third house. There will be no nice, polite, respectable, successful distance-keepers who admire him from afar but withhold their devotion.
Where will you be? This is your moment to decide.
Would you bow your head and close your eyes right now? I want to give you a few moments to talk with God, and then give you a chance to respond. I'm going to ask you to keep your eyes closed. I know a lot of you have already committed your lives to Jesus. God may be raising issues that you need to pray about right now, so go ahead and do that.
I want to speak to those of you who have never clearly committed your life to Jesus. You have never clearly confessed your sin and repented and wholly devoted your life to Christ. I want to give you a chance to make that commitment now and to express it by briefly standing up as a way of saying with your body, "God, I'm coming out of the crowd. I'm crossing the line from admirer to follower. No more playing games. No more half measures. I have never fully devoted my life to following Jesus and expressed that to you, and I'm doing that today."
If that is your decision, if that is your intent, I want to invite you right now to stand up wherever you are. This is just between you and God. When you make that decision, it is the most important thing a human can do. It brings joy and delight to the heart of God when somebody says, "All right, God, my life, my time, everything I have, is yours."
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.